Political Archive of the German Foreign Office


A review of the Political Archive of the German Foreign Office (Politisches Archiv des Auswärtigen Amtes), Berlin, Germany.

In July 2013 I spent three weeks at the archives of the German Foreign Office in Berlin — officially called “The Political Archive” — to collect materials for my dissertation on German banking in late Qing and early Republican China (see the archive’s webpage in German and in English). While I was mainly interested in the files on Sino-German relations, the archives with their large collection of foreign office records, German embassy and consular files and private papers of former diplomats are of interest to any researcher working on Germany’s foreign relations since 1867.

The archives are located in the main building of the Foreign Office in central Berlin. Visitors of the archives are asked to enter at a side entrance of the office at Kurstraße 36. The easiest way to get there is to take the U2 subway line to Hausvogteiplatz station and then walk to the side entrance from there. Prior to your visit you need to register with the archives by sending an email with your research topic and the dates of your intended visit to the archivists. As the reading room of the archives is relatively small, it is recommended to do this at least three weeks before your visit to make sure that you can still reserve a work space. This being said, during a past research trip to Berlin I once also managed to arrange a visit on quite short notice by simply calling up the archives (+49 30 1817 2179), as on most days not all people that book a place show up. However, especially for longer visits, I would definitely recommend to book a place well in advance.

When you reach the side entrance of the Foreign Office you first need to announce yourself at the registration desk and hand in your passport or photo ID in exchange for a visitor’s pass. Apart from this, no letter of introduction or any other document is needed to use the archives. After receiving your visitor’s pass you have to pass through an airport-like security check, which involves walking through a metal detector and having your bag sent through an X-ray machine. This sounds much more serious than it is and seems to simply be the normal procedure for anyone visiting the Foreign Office. After the security check you have to walk along a short corridor before reaching the lockers and the reading room. There are plenty of lockers available, just don’t forget to bring either a 1 euro or 2 euro coin, which is necessary to use the lockers (you get the coin back after using the locker).

The opening hours of the reading room are 8.30am to 4.30pm from Monday to Thursday and 8.30am to 3pm on Fridays. While there are a few cafés and restaurants around Hausvogteiplatz subway station, most visitors bring their lunch to the archives and eat it at one of the tables that can be found along the corridor leading up the reading room. In the reading room there is a small reference library on the right side, which holds a number of reference works on modern German history and the various catalogs of the archives. However, most of the space in the reading room is taken up by several big tables, which provide work spaces for up to twenty-seven visitors.  Each of the tables has several power sockets to charge your laptop or digital camera, but there is no internet access available. One of the tables is equipped with several microfilm readers and there also is a smaller table next to the archivists’ desk, where visitors can use one of four computers to search the catalogs and order materials.  When you first visit the archives you have to fill in a short form with your basic information and your research topic. The archivists will then register you and either ask you which materials you would like to order or hand you your pre-ordered materials.

Unfortunately, there exists no online catalog for the archives of the Foreign Office. This makes it somewhat difficult to prepare your archival stay, as the website of the archives only gives a very short overview of the files that are held there. Two published catalogs exist — the so called “Oxford” and “Kent” catalogs (The American Historical Association, Committee for the Study of War Documents, ed., A Catalogue of Files and Microfilms of the German Foreign Ministry Archives 1867-1920. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959, reprinted New York, 1970; George O. Kent, ed., A Catalog of Files and Microfilms of the German Foreign Ministry Archives 1920-1945, 4 vols. Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 1962-1966) — that give an overview of most of the pre-1945 files that are held in the archives today. The problem with these catalogs is that the serial numbers given for the listed files are not the ones in use today and so you will still need to ask the archivists what the correct serial number of a given file is. Therefore, the easiest way of preparing your visit to the archives, especially if it is your first visit, is to simply email the archivists and ask them about files that are relevant to your research topic. The archivists are generally very helpful with suggesting relevant files and in my case even sent me the scanned pages of the China-related part of their catalog, so that I could easily pre-order the files I wished to use.

Once you are in the archives, finding relevant files becomes much easier, as you can browse the up-to-date catalogs in the reference library or on the computers. On the computers you can also search the catalog for keywords, but at least in my case this did not produce any good results. I should also point out that a small part of the pre-1945 files of the Foreign Office are still held in the Federal Archives in Berlin-Lichterfelde (Bundesarchiv Berlin-Lichterfelde), so it is also worth checking the online catalog of the Federal Archives when searching for files of the Foreign Office.

You can order and consult any files in the archives of the Foreign Office that are older than thirty years with the exception of personal papers, which are only available thirty years after the person’s death. Ordering files is very convenient. You can either ask the archivists to order them for you or order files yourself using the computers. The only limitation to ordering documents that I encountered was that the computer ordering system stopped me when I tried to order more than twenty files per day, but this is more than anyone could reasonably go through in one day anyways so it is not really an issue. New files are fetched twice a day at 10am and 2pm (1pm on Fridays) and are normally available shortly after these times. When I visited the archives none of the files I consulted were digitized and to my knowledge there is no digitization project underway. This means that all files that you are handed are either the original files or copies on microfilm. Once you have received your files you are allowed to make as many copies as you like with your digital camera free of charge.  It is also possible to order paper copies of documents through an external company, but due to the rather expensive prices (0.5 euro/page for original documents and 0.3 euro/page for microfilms) most visitors simply bring their camera and take pictures of the documents themselves.

Overall, it is always a pleasure to work in the archives of the German Foreign Office. The archivists are very helpful and are truly interested in the research you are doing. As the reading room and the number of visitors are rather small, they also have time to answer any questions you have about the collection of the archives or to make suggestions about documents that might be interesting for you. Also, the very quick and convenient ordering of files and the fact that you can make copies with a digital camera means that I have been able to collect a significant number of materials during each of my past visits, even if I only stayed for a few days.

For readers in the United States and the United Kingdom it might be interesting to know that a part of the pre-1945 files of the German Foreign Office were copied at the end of the Second World War and the copies deposited in the US and UK National Archives (for more details see the US National Archive website and the UK National Archive website). While these copied records only represent a small part of the total collection of the archives of the Foreign Office they might still be of interest to some researchers and also give a good picture of the kinds of documents you can find in the archives of the German Foreign Office in Berlin.

Ghassan Moazzin
Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies
University of Cambridge

Image: Politisches Archiv Regalgasse. Photograph by Auswärtiges Amt.

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